Why coronavirus will accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Sanjeev Khagram is an expert in global leadership, the international political economy, sustainable development, and the data revolution. As director general and dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management, Khagram has Thunderbird intensely focused on its founding mission of advancing peace and prosperity worldwide through interdisciplinary management and leadership education for all sectors. He is available for interviews via phone or on-camera via Zoom.

Dean Khagram recently co-authored this piece for The Economist's Intelligence Unit Perspectives site:

The pandemic's silver lining is the chance to experiment with technologies and co-operative approaches across borders that could lead to safer, more sustainable and more inclusive global futures.

The theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed in 1972 by biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, holds that populations of living organisms tend to experience a significant amount of evolutionary change in short, stressful bursts of time. 1Gould and Eldredge argued that evolution isn’t a constant, gradual process—it occurs during episodes when species are in environments of high tension or especially crisis.

The human species is going through such a period right now: the covid-19 pandemic. The profound pressures that individuals, organisations and societies face in this crisis are accelerating the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds.2 The current state of emergency compels us to consider the necessity of structural shifts in our relationship with the environment and how we conduct ourselves as a global community. 

The pandemic is forcing all of us to appreciate how much we rely on 21st-century technologies—artificial intelligence, the internet of things, social media, digital learning platforms, augmented and virtual reality, drones, 3D printing and so much more—to keep us healthy and to transform economies. The unprecedented context is simultaneously driving us to become far more reliant on breakthrough digital, biological and physical technologies and far more inventive about how we can use these emerging technologies to create value in new ways. 

More than 7bn people live in countries that have implemented extraordinary restrictions on the movement of people,3 and more than a third of the world is under stringent lockdown.4 In response, systems that have resisted change for decades have gone virtual. Video conferencing as the primary means of co-working? Old news. Remote learning? More than 1.5bn students are doing that today.5 Organisations from all sectors are building new technical capabilities, harnessing digital technologies and evolving their business models at a pace unimaginable only months ago. 

The virus is crowding new technology paradigms into healthcare everywhere. Networks of epidemiologists are tracking the coronavirus using low-cost gene-sequencing technologies6  which are also driving some of the most promising vaccine candidates.7 Researchers and medics are using machine learning to search repositories of scholarly articles published about covid-19, such as the 47,000 articles indexed by the covid-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) Explorer.8 Informal networks of hobbyists and manufacturing firms are using 3D printers to make tens of thousands of face shields to help protect front-line medical workers.9  And in an unprecedented move, Apple and Google have partnered to invent a contact tracing application embedded in the operating systems for smartphones.10

This explosion in innovation started when covid-19 threw humankind into uncharted waters. During historical periods where the equilibrium has been dramatically disturbed, organisations and economies have struggled to survive. 

But we are technological beings who purposefully—and at scale—adapt the environment to our needs. Scientists have called our current epoch “the Anthropocene” because humans are the overwhelming force shaping the planet’s ecosystems. Hence, those who successfully adapt won’t just thrive in the accelerated 4IR—they will shape it. 

The question is, into what?

A critical choice that humans will have to make is how to re-engage with a natural world that has been better off as a result of the pandemic. 

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg was “striking to disrupt the system”. 11 The pandemic has done just that and is revealing what it means—and what it costs—to dramatically drop carbon emissions.12 Passing one of our climate’s “tipping points” could involve costs that are orders of magnitude higher.13

Will the massive stimulus packages being rolled out by governments around the world include significant 4IR re-skilling for the newly unemployed, advancing a global green economy?14

Or, in the frantic rush to get “back to normal,” will nations relax environmental standards and justify wastefulness in the name of short-term economic growth?

The pandemic is demonstrating the extent to which high levels of collaboration are required for deeply interconnected societies to manage—and recover from—complex, exponential systemic crises. The fact that viruses are borderless is just another reason why humans need to invest in dramatically re-tooled principles and mechanisms for global co-operation.

This crisis should spur us all to explore a new form of globalisation for the 21st century, one that prioritises collective investment in global public goods—including technological and ethical goods—to the benefit of all.15 Such global integration must enable diverse stakeholders from across the public, private and non-profit sectors worldwide to work more effectively and sustainably together.

The pandemic has several silver linings. One of them is the chance to experiment with technologies and co-operative approaches across borders that could lead to safer, more sustainable and more inclusive global futures. 

The scientific collaboration, purpose-driven hacking16 and political leadership that will bring us out of the pandemic are precisely the tools that can unlock success in reducing inequality, adapting societies to the impacts of climate change and restoring our natural environment to a more balanced state. We must create a new punctuated equilibrium that maximizes 4IR benefits inclusively and sustainably.

The covid-19 pandemic is a major test for us as a species: a transformational window of opportunity. Will we seize it?

written by: 

Sanjeev Khagram, director-general and dean, Thunderbird School of Global Management 
Nicholas Davis, professor of practice, Thunderbird School of Global Management

The Economist retains all rights.


[1] S J Gould, N Eldredge, “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered”, Paleobiology, Vol. 3, No. 2, pages 115-151, 1977. http://www.johnboccio.com/courses/SOC26/Bak-Sneppan/07_Gould.pdf

[2] K Shwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond”, World Economic Forum, January 14th 2016. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/

[3] P Connor, “More than nine-in-ten people worldwide live in countries with travel restrictions amid COVID-19”, Pew Research Centre, April 1st 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/01/more-than-nine-in-ten-people-worldwide-live-in-countries-with-travel-restrictions-amid-covid-19/

[4] J Kaplan, L Frias, M McFall-Johnsen, “A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown — here's our constantly updated list of countries and restrictions”, Business Insider, [Accessed April 21st 2020]. https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[5] “COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response”, UNESCO, [Accessed April 21st 2020]. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

[6] K Finley, “Data Sharing and Open Source Software Help Combat Covid-19”, Wired, March 13th 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/data-sharing-open-source-software-combat-covid-19/

[7] T Thanh Le, Z Andreadakis, A Kumar et al., “The COVID-19 vaccine development landscape”, Nature, April 9th 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41573-020-00073-5

[8] “CORD-19 Explorer”, Allen Institute for AI, [Accessed April 21st 2020]. https://cord-19.apps.allenai.org

[9] N Frandino, “3D printers forge face shields for fight against the coronavirus”, Reuters, April 3rd 2020.


[10] M Gurman, “Apple, Google Bring Covid-19 Contact-Tracing to 3 Billion People”, Bloomberg, April 10th 2020. https://apple.news/AHY0me9nbTnequX80tNawgw

[11] ““We Are Striking to Disrupt the System”: An Hour with 16-Year-Old Climate Activist Greta Thunberg”, Democracy Now!, September 11th 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/9/11/greta_thunberg_swedish_activist_climate_crisis

[12] M Stone, “Carbon emissions are falling sharply due to coronavirus. But not for long.”, National Geographic, April 3rd 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-causing-carbon-emissions-to-fall-but-not-for-long/

[13] T M Lenton, J Rockström, O Gaffney et al., “Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against”, Nature, November 27th 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03595-0

[14] S Khagram, “Global Climate Restoration for People, Prosperity and Planet: $Trillions in Market Opportunities and Economic, Social, Environmental Benefits”, Thunderbird School of Global Management, January 2020. https://thunderbird.asu.edu/sites/default/files/khagram-gcr-market-report-2020_0.pdf

[15] See for example https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/global-technology-governance-a-multistakeholder-approach

[16] “Fighting a Global Crisis”, Global Hack, April 9-12th 2020. https://theglobalhack.com